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Critical attitudes about immigrants not 'Minnesota Nice'
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This sign sits in the window of a dry cleaner store in downtown Chaska. One of its employees says she thinks there are too many Mexican immigrants in the town, and that the U.S. should temporarily close its borders to newcomers. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
Minnesotans' attitudes about the role of government, community and immigration are changing for the worse, say the authors of a report. The Minnesota Community Project, a group founded by former Vice President Walter Mondale, commissioned the study. The majority of the people involved in the study expressed favorable attitudes toward immigration. However, the authors expressed dismay over data which show a streak of hostility toward immigrants, especially by people living in the outer-ring suburbs. The study's authors say those attitudes go against Minnesota's tradition of tolerance and acceptance of newcomers.

St. Paul, Minn. — Researchers conducted surveys and focus groups that reached more than 1,200 Minnesotans living in urban, exurban and rural areas. The harshest criticism of immigrants were exhibited by some of the white exurban residents in the focus groups.

A woman from Anoka County said immigrants "should stay home." A woman from Scott County said immigrants "are only up here to have their babies to get the money."

I've lived here my whole life and pay taxes and I see so much of our money going to, not the people who made the state or kept the state what it is, it's going to all these other people that are coming in.
- Laurie Dennis

"I've lived here my whole life and pay taxes. And I see so much of our money going to -- not the people who made the state or kept the state what it is -- it's going to all these other people that are coming in," says Laurie Dennis.

Dennis, 45, is white and works in a dry cleaner store in downtown Chaska. A sign that says "Proud to be an American" sits in the bottom corner of the store's front window.

Chaska is located in Carver County, one of the exurban counties examined in the study. Ten years ago, about 250 Hispanic people lived in the county. Today, Hispanic numbers have increased nearly ten-fold, due largely to an influx of immigrants from Mexico. Dennis says she believes the Mexican immigrants are exempt from paying taxes.

"I don't get any handouts," says Dennis. "I don't even qualify ... for any medical assistance. I've lived here my whole life, and they just come and they just take and they don't give back to the community."

Dennis says she has Mexican immigrant friends who are undocumented, but get around the system by using fake identification and falsely claiming dependents on tax forms. And, like some of the participants in the study, she says immigrants, legal and illegal are a burden on government entitlement programs.

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Image Emmett Carson

"A lot of the locals, I think, are really angry," Dennis says. "I think it's mostly because there are a lot of elderly and people like that who can't get help. And they feel like they're being cheated."

According to the report, 27 percent of all respondents said immigrants are a drain on public schools. Fewer respondents -- 25 percent -- say immigrants are hard-working and make a valuable contribution to Minnesota. The authors of the study say some of the attitudes expressed in the surveys and focus groups about immigrants are not "Minnesota nice."

"Minnesota does have a certain progressive, collectivist, communal, up North tradition, there's no question about that," says Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiement, a Minnesota-based conservative think tank. "When talking about questions of immigration, though, immigration in this state and this nation has always been complex, chock full of tensions."

Pearlstein is the descendent of eastern European Jewish immigrants. He says unlike the days when his grandparents sailed by the Statue of Liberty, today's immigrants have less incentive to assimilate. Pearlstein says that's due in part to "radical multiculturalism," a practice that concentrates too much on celebrating people's differences, rather than their similarities.

Pearlstein says that makes people less inclined to learn English, and more inclined to separate themselves by race and ethnicity. And he says it's easier for immigrants of today to rely on government assistance.

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Image Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight

"You go back to the latter part of the 19th century, early part of the 20th century, (and) to be an immigrant it was real, real tough -- quite frequently," says Pearlstein. "Not that it's a piece of cake now. But without governmental programs -- if a family couldn't make it, if a person couldn't make it, quite frequently they went back to their home country."

Kathy Fennelly, a professor of public affairs who teaches at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute -- her specialty is immigration and public policy -- says it's true that many early immigrants did return home because they couldn't make it here. However she says there are a lot of myths and misinformation about immigrants in Minnesota.

"The problem is stereotypes," Fennelly says. "The problem is that we want to, and we often do, make statements that are supposed to cover everyone."

For instance, Fennelly says assertions that Minnesota's European immigrants were more likely than today's immigrants to assimilate are inaccurate. She says it wasn't uncommon for European immigrants in Minnesota to never learn English. And some of those groups named their towns after the European cities they came from, like New Ulm and New Prague.

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Image Miguel and Letitia Jiminez

"There is enormous misinformation about the benefits that immigrants get," says Fennelly. "Especially since welfare reform, the 1996 immigration reform and welfare reform, which essentially stripped benefits from legal immigrants as well as from undocumented immigrants."

Fennelly, who has reviewed the study by the Minnesota Community Project, says it appears that most of the survey respondents were confusing immigrants with refugees. For the most part, Hmong and Somalis are refugees because they are fleeing countries where they faced persecution and death. Mexican immigrants, by and large, have come to the U.S. and Minnesota to work and earn better wages than those in Mexico. Refugees receive short term support from the government. Mexican immigrants who work are not exempt from taxes, says Fennelly.

If there are ill feelings toward the Mexican immigrant community in Chaska, restaurant owners Miguel and Leticia Jiminez haven't experienced it.

Miguel has been in Minnesota for 10 years. Before he came to Minnesota he attended college in Florida. Their children go to school in nearby Shakopee. Miguel says the children like school and haven't experienced any problems there. He says he doesn't speak English well and asks for help from his wife.

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Image Glen Gehring's barbershop

"It's quiet," says Miguel. "A quiet town ... really good people."

Chaska city officials have made efforts to keep relations between the Mexican-immigrant and white communities smooth. They've sponsored public dialogues and panel discussions about race and culture; members of the police force are learning to speak Spanish.

Chaska barbershop owner Glen Gehring says for the most part, he doesn't think there's a great deal of inter-ethnic tension in the town. Gehring, who is white and has lived in Chaska for 32 years, says there may be isolated incidents of problems here and there. But he says for the most part, people like the cultural and culinary diversity the Mexican immigrant population has brought.

"But some of the things I hear as a barber. I just hear people that want people to conform to -- I'll just use the term 'American culture,' as far as that goes," Gehring says. "I think it's natural for people to want that."

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